How Far the Laws & Commands of Human Authorities Bind the Conscience

“There is one lawgiver…”

James 4:12

“For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord…  But why dost thou judge thy brother?…  for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ…  So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.”

Rom. 14:8-12

“For he is the minister of God to thee for good.  But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”

Rom. 13:4



“All human laws are, properly speaking, only declaratory.”

Edmund Burke




On Positive Laws & Ordinances

On Church Ordinances

On Arbitrary Laws

On Implicit Faith & Obedience

That the Mere Will, Determination, Judgment or Saying So of Authorities is an Insufficient Ground of Faith & Obedience, & that Authorities are Never to Act or Require Something without a Naturally, Morally or Spiritually Sufficient Reason, & that Manifest to Consciences



Order of Contents

Intro & the Significance of Calvin’s Quote
Articles  10+
Rutherford’s Distinctions & Conclusions
Quotes  12+

God Only is the One Lawgiver
If Authorities may Rule only in Accord with God’s Moral Law, how then is this
.        More Authority than being Privately Counseled with God’s Moral Law?
On Rulers Erring in Judgment in a Situation with Degrees of Goodness

Latin  3



“…but the truth is, neither the king’s judgment [is] as a certain rule to the representative Church, nor [is] the representative Church’s judgment a rule to the king, but the Word of God [is], the infallible rule to both.  Judgement may crook; truth cannot bow; it stands still, unmoveable, like God the Father of Truth.”

Samuel Rutherford
Due Right, pt. 2, p. 415



Intro & the Significance of the Quote Below by Calvin

It is a popular tenet of evangelicalism that if the civil government makes a law that does not entail a person to sin personally, that it binds the conscience to be obeyed.

It is a popular tenet of Fundamentalism and High Churchism that if a church leader gives a direction remotely within its jurisdiction (for instance: a church meeting is held, therefore one must be at that place, at that time) that one is bound in conscience to observe this, or one is in sin.

Numerous forms of Patriarchalism teach that if a father gives a command to his wife or child, and it does not entail personal sin, that person is in sin if he or she does not obey it.

All of this is not Reformed according to the Word of God, which teaches that “God alone is the Lord of the conscience (James 4:12; Rom. 14:4)” (WCF 20.2), and no human authority.

As Calvin elucidates below, human authorities that wield the authority of God, do so only so far as God has given them express authority in their general ends and designs.  That is, the civil magistrate is to uphold good and punish evil, the Church has spiritual power unto the edification of its members, and fathers likewise have authority for the well-being of their family.

Any specific command of human authorities, however, insofar as it entails a given context, history, specifics and detailed circumstances, goes beyond general ends and cannot innately bind persons’ consciences, especially if there are legitimate, justifying moral reasons otherwise, as the Lord has not specifically revealed or imposed his own power with regard to such specifics.

While persons ought to give due weight and honor to human authorities and their commands (per the 5th Commandment), giving them the benefit of the doubt generally speaking (especially in order not to give unnecessary scandal, per the 6th Commandment), and as subjects are bound by the Lord in conscience to fulfilling the ordained general ends of such authorities, yet it is God’s moral and natural law alone, rightly applied to specific circumstances (which ought to be recognized by the conscience), that can bind a person’s conscience so that not to do it is sinful.

While human authorities may enforce their decisions with the power they wield in order to uphold the moral and natural law of God insofar as it appears to them in the sight of men (the external court), especially where sin appears to be inevitably involved, yet no human authority is omniscient and knows all the factors in a situation, nor can they know the thoughts of the heart.  Likewise, human authorities are liable to err.

Hence, God (with whom we have to do) must remain the sole Lord of the conscience.  On the other hand, “the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also. (Rom. 10:17Rom. 14:23Isa. 8:20Acts 17:11John 4:22Hos. 5:11Rev. 13:12,16,17Jer. 8:9)”  (WCF 20.2)

The quote below by Calvin is significant because it implicitly applies to all human authorities (including the family even though he does not specifically mention the family).  It also shows that this teaching regarding human authority in making laws, which would go on to become the standard Reformed doctrine on the subject, was present and being taught from at least shortly after the Reformation.

The writer on this page who most precisely elucidates and answers the issues, in accordance with the truth and the theology of Scripture, we believe, is Samuel Rutherford.  He, however, is not always easy to read and digest.  William Perkins, the Father of Puritanism, is much easier to read and substantially teaches the same doctrine, though he uses verbally different terms and categories at times.

After reading and digesting the best reformed answers to how far human commands oblige, namely as far as God’s natural and moral law inherently obliges in the situation, and to that extent and degree only, one no longer needs to wonder and be perplexed about the answer to the question; rather, one ought in humble faith and commitment unto God seek to live according to the right answer in all our varied, real life situations, according to God’s will.

Truth is humbling; it means that the entire and frequent inclination of our heart to being a dictator and Pope, especially in the name of authority, and that from God, is a dream, a vain and empty show, and is perverse.  We simply are never able to wield more authority or power than that of God’s own moral will, nor were we ever meant to.  May Christ save us devilish tyrants, and deliver us from our own cherished, innate evil; and may we, by his Spirit, walk humbly with Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

May God give you light and understanding, and may Christ be your Teacher (Ps. 25:4-5).



Quote by John Calvin

Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Beveridge  (Edinburgh, 1846), vol. 3, book 4, ch. 10, section 5, pp. 196-197

“5. Let us now return to human laws.  If they are imposed for the purpose of forming a religious obligation, as if the observance of them was in itself necessary, we say that the restraint thus laid on the conscience is unlawful.  Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only.  Hence the common distinction between the earthly forum and the forum of conscience.¹

¹ French: …”And in fact, such is the import of the common distinction which has been held by all the schools, that human and civil jurisdictions are quite different from those which touch the conscience.”

When the whole world was enveloped in the thickest darkness of ignorance, it was still held (like a small ray of light which remained unextinguished) that conscience was superior to all human judgments.  Although this, which was acknowledged in word, was afterwards violated in fact, yet God was pleased that there should even then exist an attestation to liberty, exempting the conscience from the tyranny of man.

But we have not yet explained the difficulty which arises from the words of Paul.  For if we must obey princes not only from fear of punishment but for conscience sake, it seems to follow, that the laws of princes have dominion over the conscience.  If this is true, the same thing must be affirmed of ecclesiastical laws.

I answer, that the first thing to be done here is to distinguish between the genus and the species.  For though individual laws do not reach the conscience, yet we are bound by the general command of God, which enjoins us to submit to magistrates.  And this is the point on which Paul’s discussion turns, viz., that magistrates are to be honored because they are ordained of God. (Rom. 13:1)  Meanwhile, he does not at all teach that the laws enacted by them reach to the internal government of the soul, since he everywhere proclaims that the worship of God, and the spiritual rule of living righteously, are superior to all the decrees of men.

Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded.  Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.”





Aquinas – Question 96, ‘Of the Power of Human Law’, 4th Article, ‘Whether Human Law Binds a Man in Conscience’ & 6th Article, ‘Whether He who is under may Act Beside the Letter of the Law?’  [Yes]  in The ‘Summa Theologica’ of St. Thomas Aquinas, Pt. 2 (1st Part)  Third Number (Questions 90-114)  trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province  (R. & T. Washbourne, 1915), Treatise on Law, (b) In Particular, pp. 69-71 & 73-75



Ponet, John – ‘In What Things, & How Far Subjects are Bounden to Obey their Princes & Governors’. in A Short Treatise of Politic Power…  (Strasbourg, 1556)

Ponet (c. 1514–1556) was an Anglican bishop, controversial writer & Marian exile. He is now best known as a resistance theorist who made a sustained attack on ‘the divine right of kings’.

Perkins, William – pp. 11-12 & 37-70  of ch. 2, ‘Of the Duties of Conscience’  in A Discourse of Conscience…  (Cambridge, 1596)

“The binder of conscience is either proper or improper.  Proper is that thing which has absolute and sovereign power in itself to bind the conscience.  And that is the Word of God written in the books of the Old and New Testament.

Reason 1.  He which is the Lord of [???] by his Word and laws binds conscience: but God is the only Lord of conscience, because He once created it, and He alone governs none but He knows it.  Therefore his Word and laws only bind conscience properly.” – pp. 11-12

“The improper binder [of the conscience] is that which has no power or virtue in itself to bind conscience: but does it only by virtue of God’s Word or of some part of it.  It is threefold: human laws, an oath, a promise.” – p. 38



Willet, Andrew

ch. 13, Controversy 7, ‘Whether law Civil and Ecclesiastical, do simply bind in conscience?’  in Hexapla, that is, A Six-Fold Commentary upon the most divine Epistle of the holy apostle St. Paul to the Romans...  ([Cambridge] 1611), pp. 617-19

1st Book, 4th General Controversy Concerning the Bishop of Rome, 7th Question, ‘The First Part, Whether the Pope may make laws to bind the conscience, and punish the transgressors thereof judicially?’  in Synopsis Papismi, that is, A General View of Papistry...  (London, 1592), pp. 141-145

Fenner, William – ‘The Secondary Bond of Conscience’, pp. 194-206  in The Soul’s Looking-Glass, Lively Representing its Estate Before God with a Treatise of Conscience: Wherein the Definitions & Distinctions Thereof are Unfolded, & Several Cases [are] Resolved  (Cambridge, 1643)

Fenner (c.1600-1640) was a reformed, English puritan.

Fenner starts out saying that ‘Others may bind conscience’, and yet after all of his qualifications, his teaching is very similar to that of Rutherford.  Fenner, however, particularly errs on the subject of ‘passive obedience’ and not morally being able to resist unjust commands of magistrates except by suffering.  

Rutherford, Samuel – Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’  of The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), pp. 201-219

Hall, Joseph – 3rd Decade, Case 6, ‘Whether the Laws of Men do Bind the Conscience, & How Far we are Tied to Their Obedience?’  in Cases of Conscience Practically Resolved Containing a Decision of the Principal Cases of Conscience of Daily Concernment & Continual Use Amongst Men: Very Necessary for their Information & Direction in These Evil Times  (London, 1654)

Hall was a godly Anglican bishop.

“Thus human laws cannot bind the conscience: It is God only, 1 John 3:21, who, as He is greater than the conscience, so has power to bind or loose it: Isa. 31:22.  It is He that is the only Lawgiver to the conscience: Jam. 4:12.  Princes and Churches may make laws for the outward man, but they can no more bind the heart than they can make it;

The laws of men therefore do not, ought not, cannot bind your conscience, as of themselves; but, if they be just, they bind you in conscience to obedience:

As then we are wont to say in relation of our actions to the laws of God, that some things are forbidden because they are sinful, and some things are sinful because they are forbidden, so it holds also in the laws of men: some things are forbidden because they are justly offensive and some other things are only therefore offensive because they are forbidden;

In the former of these we must yield our careful obedience out of respect even to the duty itself; in the latter, out of respect to the will of the lawgiver; yet so, as that if our own important occasions shall enforce us to transgress a penal law, without any affront of authority or scandal to others, our submission to the penalty frees us from a sinful disobedience.” – pp. 211-13, 218-9

Hall, Thomas – pp. 41-42  in The Beauty of Magistracy in an Exposition of the 82nd Psalm, where is set forth the necessity, utility, dignity, duty, and mortality of magistrates…  (London, 1660)

This is the bibliography on the topic that Hall provides:

“See this Question (An leges humanae & obligent conscientiam) more fully debated in D. [John] Davenant, de Judice ac norma fidei, ch. 26; D. Andrews on the fifth Commandment, ch. 4, p. 336; Ames, CC. bk. 1, ch. 11-12; Rutherford, Divine Right Of Church Government, p. 201; Sharpius, Common Places, Pt. 2, p. 240; Alsted, CC., p. 340, 342 & Gerhard, de Magistrat. Polit., p. 355; Musculus, Common Places, p. 645, folio; Ames, CC., bk. 5, ch. 25, q. 4.”

Baxter, Richard – A Christian Directory: a Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience  Buy  (1673)

Pt. 3, Christian Ecclesiastics, Question 132, ‘Is it unlawful to obey in all those cases where it is unlawful to impose and command?  Or in what cases?  And how far pastors must be believed and obeyed?’, pp. 888-889

Pt. 4, Christian Politics, 3, ‘Directions for subjects concerning their duty to their rulers.  A fuller resolution of the Cases: 1. Whether the laws of men do bind the conscience; 2. Especially smaller & penal laws?’, pp. 36-38

“To ask, ‘Whether man’s law as man’s do bind us in conscience?’ is all one as to ask, ‘Whether man be God?'” – p. 36

Brown of Wamphray, John – On Rom. 13:5  in An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, with Large Practical Observations, Delivered in Several Lectures  (d. 1685; Edinburgh, 1766), p. 508

Brown’s treatment is helpful, though he says, “if their commands be such as they cannot obey in conscience, they must subject themselves unto their censure and punishment…”  On the face of it, this is the doctrine of the necessity of passive obedience, at least with regard to willingly undergoing the punishment for disobeying, though it is possible Brown qualifies this more in his other writings.

The necessity of passive obedience, in some respects, is more pronounced in Elder Matthew Vogan’s contemporary summary and application of this section of Brown, ‘What Does our Conscience Owe to the Government?’ (2020). 

While it may be possible and right to submit to erroneous punishment or discipline for greater-good reasons (in consistency with God’s Moral Law) in some situations, yet the necessity of material, passive obedience is the same as formal, passive obedience, which is immoral, it formally founding obedience on the sinful will of man apart from the Moral Law of God.  See our page, On Passive Obedience.



La Placette, Jean – Ch. 8, ‘That the Laws of our Country, and in General, the Commands of our Civil Superiors, are Rules which Oblige the Conscience’ & Ch. 9, ‘Whether we Ought to Yield Obedience to All the Laws of Civil Governors’  in The Christian Casuist: or, a Treatise of Conscience  (London: 1705)

La Placette (1629-1718) was a French Huguenot minister and wrote in the context of the absolutism of the Romanist French kings.  He goes too far, especially in ch. 9, with how far the magistrate must be obeyed.

“I choose to make the obligation which we are under of obeying civil laws, and the commands of our governors, to depend on the will of God, because the other foundations on which it is wont to be built do not appear of sufficient strength and solidity.” – p. 57



Vogan, Matthew – ‘What Does our Conscience Owe to the Government?’  (2020)

Vogan is an elder in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  He here summarizes and gives contemporary application to a section of John Brown of Wamphray, On Rom. 13:5  in An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans…  (d. 1685; Edinburgh, 1766), p. 508.

While Vogan’s treatment is helpful, especially for the popular audience, he includes an emphasis on the necessity of passive obedience to erroneous punishment.  This notion is not as pronounced in the original section of Brown.

While it may be possible and right to submit to erroneous punishment or discipline for greater-good reasons (in consistency with God’s Moral Law) in some situations, yet the necessity of material, passive obedience is the same as formal, passive obedience, which is immoral, it formally founding obedience on the sinful will of man apart from the Moral Law of God.  See our page, On Passive Obedience.



Rutherford’s 7 Distinctions & 6 Conclusions


Samuel Rutherford, Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’  in The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), pp. 201-219



1.  A human law is taken (1) in concreto, when judges command what God commands, as when they make a law against murder;  (2) in abstracto, when the judge forbids what may tend to murder, as carrying armor in a city in the night [which is suspicious of violence and a threat to the society; c.f. Rom. 13:12].

2.  There is some moral equity in right human laws.

3.  [There is] something positive [in right human laws].

4.  There be four things to be regarded in human laws: (1) Public peace of the society;  (2) The credit, honor and majesty of the ruler, even when the law is unjust;  (3) Obedience passive, and subjection, by patient suffering;  (4) Obedience active by doing, which is now to be considered.

5.  A human law-civil may oblige, ratione generalis praecepti, ‘in regard of the general command’ to obey our superiors, as the Fifth Command says.  But the question is, if a human law, as merely positive [without moral equity], oblige in conscience, as if this which the captain forbids, as not to speak the watch-word, be in itself against the Sixth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, if no murder follow upon the not speaking of the watch-word, though it be against the Fifth [Commandment] in the general.

6.  The question is not whether we be obliged in conscience to obey superiors in things lawful, or whether we be obliged in conscience to obey superiors when they are sole authoritative relaters and carriers of God’s express law to us, for then they bring nothing of their own to lay upon us, and in these cases their laws are rather God’s laws delivered by superiors to us, and bind the conscience.

But the question is, if positive laws in particular matters, negatively only, conform to the Word, as in matters of economy and policy, as not to eat flesh in Lent, for the growth of cattle; in matters of art, and in ordering of war and military acts commanded by captains, if these commandments, as such, oblige the conscience.  Now to oblige the conscience is when the not doing of such a thing brings an evil conscience; now an evil conscience, as Pareus says, is the sense of sin committed against God and the fear of God’s judgment.

7.  The conscience is obliged by doing or not doing two ways:  (1) Per se, kindly [in its kind], when the fact of itself obliges and for no respect without, as to give alms to the poor at the commandment of the superior: (2) When the fact obliges for a reason from public peace, good example and order.



1.  When rulers command what God expressly commands, their laws oblige the conscience, Ps. 34:11, ‘Come ye children, hearken unto me, and I will teach you the fear of the Lord;’ Prov. 4:1, “Hear ye children the instruction of a Father.”

2.  Public peace in all the commandments of superiors, in so far as can be without sin, obliges the conscience, as Heb. 12:14, ‘Follow peace with all men and godliness;’ Ps. 34:14, ‘Seek peace and follow after it;’ Rom. 12:18.

3.  Subjection to the censures of rulers by suffering patiently is an obligation lying upon all private persons, 1 Pet. 2:20, ‘But if when ye do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable to God;’ Rom. 13:2, ‘Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.’

4.  Nothing in non-obeying unwarrantable commandments must be done that redounds to the discredit of the ruler or the hurting of his majesty and honor, 1 Pet. 2:17, ‘Honor the king;’ Eccl. 10:20, ‘Curse not the king: for even when we deny subjection or obedience-objective to that which they command, yet owe we obedience official, and all due respect and reverence to the person and eminent place of the ruler, as Acts 7:2, Steven calls them, Men, brethren and fathers, Acts. 7:51, and yet ‘stiffnecked resisters of the Holy Ghost.’

5.  Human laws, whether civil or ecclesiastic, in that particular positive matter which they have of art, economy, policy, and in God’s matters of mere human coin and stamp, do not bind the conscience at all, per se, kindly [in their kind] and of themselves.

1.  Nothing, but what is either Gods express Word, or his Word by consequence does lay a band on the conscience of itself: But not to eat flesh in Lent upon civil reasons [to let the cattle grow], not to carry armor in the night, to wear surplice, and to cross infants in Baptism, are neither God’s Word expressly, nor by consequence.  The major [proposition] is sure, because the Word is the perfect and adequate object of matters of faith and moral practice which concerns the conscience, Ps. 19:7-8; 119:9; Jn. 20:31; Prov. 8:9.

2.  Because whatever thing lays a band on the conscience, the not doing of that would be a sin before God if the ruler should never command it.  But the carrying [of] armor in the night, the not wearing [of a] surplice in divine service should be no sin before God if the ruler should never command them, as reason, Scriptures and adversaries teach.  The proposition I instruct from the definition of an obligation of conscience, for to lay a band on the conscience is defined [as] to lay a command on the soul, which ye are obliged before God to do, as you would eschew sin and obtain eternal salvation…

3.  None can lay on a band of not-doing under the hazard of sin, but they that can remit sins, for the power that looses, the same binds: But mortal men cannot bind to sin, nor loose men from sin, but where God goes before them in binding and loosing, for they cannot bestow the grace of pardoning sin…

4.  Whoever can lay on bands of laws to bring any under the debt of sin, must lay on bands of obligation to eternal punishment, but God only can do this, Mt. 10:28.  The Proposition is clear, because sin against God, essentially includes a relative obligation to eternal punishment.

5.  In matters of Gods worship this is clear.  The schoolmen, as Aquinas, Suarez, Ferrariensis, Conradus teach us that there is a twofold good.  The first is:

An objective and primordial goodness, whereby things are agreeable to God’s Law, if rulers find not this in that good which they command, they are not just, and so not to be obeyed.

There is another goodness that comes from the will of authority, and so only divine authority must make things good; the will and authority of rulers finds objective goodness in them, and therefore enacts laws of things, but because they enact laws of things, they do not therefore become good and lawful; It is the will of the Creator of all beings which is the measure, rule and cause of the goodness of things…

Men cannot make worlds; nor can their will create goodness in acts indifferent, nor can their forbidding will illegitimate or make evil any actions indifferent, and therefore things must be morally good, and so intrinsically good without the creative influence of human authority, and from God only are they apt to edify, and to oblige the conscience in the terms of goodness moral.

And this is strengthened by that which in reason cannot be denied, to wit, that it is essential to every human law that lays any obligation on the conscience, that it be just, nor is it to be called a law except it be just, and justice and equity human laws have from God, the law of nature and his Word, not from the authority and will of men…  the schoolmen…  give strong reasons why rulers cannot lay an obligation on the conscience when the matter of the law is light and naughty…   the just weight of the matter is the only just ground of the law’s obligation.  Therefore:

1.  The will of the lawgiver, except he make a moat a mountain, cannot lay an obligation of necessity on man.

2.  It were a foolish law, and so no law to oblige to eternal punishment and the offending of God for a light thing, for this were to place the way of salvation in that wherein the way consists not.

3.  Such a law were not for edification, but for destruction of souls.

4.  This was the Pharisees fault, Mt. 23, to lay on intolerable burdens on men’s souls.

5.  The law of God and nature frees us in positive laws from guilt, in case of necessity, as David did lawfully eat showbread.

6.  A civil law may not take away a man’s life for a straw, far less can it bind to God’s wrath.

7.  Augustine says they be unjust balances to esteem things great or small for our sole will.

Out of all which, I conclude that no law as a law does oblige the conscience, but that which has from the matter moral equity, and not from the intention of the lawgiver, as Cajetan, Silvester, Angelus and Corduba teach, which intention must take a rule from the matter of the law, and not give a rule.  Gerson, no law (says he) is a law to be called as necessary to salvation (as all good laws should be) but that which de jure divino, is according to God’s law…  And therefore his [Durandus’s] mind is that all obligation of Conscience, in human commandments comes from God’s will and law, that is, from the just and necessary matter of the law, not from the will of men.

6.  All human or ecclesiastic laws binding the conscience have necessary, and not probable deduction only, by the warrant of both the major proposition and assumption from the Word of God and Law of Nature…

…And it follows from a sure ground that [which] Vasquez lays down, and he has it from Driedo, to wit, that the efficacy of obligation in human laws, comes not from the will of lawgivers, or their intention, but from the dignity or weightiness of the matter.  If then the matter be not from God’s law, just, the obligation is none at all; for if the law from man’s will shall lay on an obligation of three degrees, whereas God’s law from God’s will, before men enacted this in a law, laid on an obligation of two degrees only, tying the conscience, then the will of man creates obligation, or the obligative power of conscience in the matter of the law, and by that same reason he creates goodness, which is absurd, for that is proper to God only.

I grant it is hard, because of the variety of singular actions in man’s life, to see the connection betwixt particulars of human laws and God’s laws; yet a connection there is, and for this cause the learned worthy divine, Pareus will have human laws in particulari and per se, ‘in the particular’ and ‘of themselves’ to bind the conscience.  Whereas Calvin, and Beza, Junius, Tilenus, Sibrandus, Whittakerus and others deny this.  But the truth is, human civil laws are two ways considered:

1.  As they are merely positive and according to the letter of the Law;

2.  As they have a connection with (1) the principles of nature, of right and wrong; (2) with the end of the law, which is the supreme law, the safety of the people…

…for whatever obliges the conscience as a divine truth, the ignorance thereof is a sinful ignorance, and makes a man guilty of eternal wrath, but men are not guilty and liable to the eternal wrath of God because they are ignorant of all the civil laws in Justinian’s book; then were we obliged to be no less versed in all the civil laws, that binds in foro humano [in the court of man], than of the Bible and law of God.

The adversaries strive to prove that these laws oblige the conscience…”





The Tetrapolitan Confession  1530

in ed. Dennison, Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries…  vol. 1 (2008), p. 155-6

Ch. 14, ‘Of Human Traditions’

“Furthermore, concerning the traditions of the fathers or such as the bishops and churches at this day ordain, the opinion of our men is as follows:  They reckon no traditions among human traditions (such, namely, as are condemned in the Scriptures) except those that conflict with the law of God,ª such as bind the conscience concerning meat, drink, times and other external things, such as forbid marriage to those to whom it is necessary for an honorable life and other things of that stamp.

For such as agree with the Scripture, and were instituted for good morals and the profit of men, even though not expressed in Scripture in words, nevertheless, since they flow from the command of love, which orders all things most becomingly, are justly regarded divine rather than human.”


Theodore Beza

‘Theodore Beza’s Confession (1560): A Brief & Pithy Sum of Christian Faith’, 5th Point, ‘Of the Church’, 33. ‘To What Purpose or End Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Serves and What are the Parts of it’  in Reformed Confessions of the 16th & 17th Centuries, ed. Dennison  (RHB, 2010), vol. 2, pp. 323

“But concerning the first part (which lies in the power [of the Church] to decree or ordain), we have already declared above that God has received to Himself fully and entirely the right to prescribe laws pertaining to the conscience and that we should walk in them uprightly before God and man.”



6 Scottish Presbyterian Ministers – in David Calderwood, History of the Church of Scotland, vol. 6, 1606, p. 462

“…all defenses, seeing they are de jure naturali et communi [by the law of nature and common law], God, and nature, and all laws, permitting lawful defenses…”


Willet, Andrew

Hexapla, that is, A Six-Fold Commentary upon the most divine Epistle of the holy apostle St. Paul to the Romans…  ([Cambridge] 1611), ch. 13, 3. The Questions & Doubts Discussed, Question 17, ‘How far the Magistrate is to be Obeyed, and wherein not to be Obeyed?’, p. 588

“…so neither is the prince to be obeyed, using his authority against God, in commanding impious and unhonest things: we must give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s, we may not give unto the prince the things which are God’s, that is, the conscience.

And in this case the apostles give us a rule, to obey God rather than man, Acts 4:19, when obedience then is denied in unjust and unlawful things, not the authority which is God’s ordinance, but the abuse of the authority is gainsaid.”


Ferme, Charles

A Logical Analysis of Romans  (†1617) on Rom. 13:5, p. 293.  Ferme (1565-1617) was a reformed Scottish divine.

“From this it follows, that subjects are no farther bound to obey the magistrate because of conscience, than in as far as he himself presides and enjoins with a good conscience, and on the authority of the Word of God: and besides, it is worthy of observation, that the wrath of the magistrate, unless directed against the disobedient, refusing to do their duty according to the injunction of Jehovah, is neither just, nor lawful, nor to be feared by his subjects, but Christians, in the Christian warfare, must pass through the midst of it to victory in Christ, by the power of the Spirit of God;

as we see in the case of Daniel, who rose to victory through the lions’ den, with his three friends, who esteemed the wrath of the king as nothing in comparison with their duty to God, although the disobedient were threatened with a fiery furnace, the heat of which had been increased seven times.”


Samuel Rutherford

Lex Rex…  (1644; Edinburgh, 1843),

Question 1, p. 1

“That power of government in general must be from God…  Now God only by a divine law can lay a band of subjection on the conscience, tying men to guilt and punishment if they transgress.”


Question 29, Whether in the Case of Defensive War, the Distinction of the Person of the King, as a Man, who can commit acts of hostile Tyranny against his Subject, and of the Office and Royal Power that He has from God and the People, as a King, Can Have Place?

“He that commandeth not what God commandeth, and punisheth and killeth where God, if personally and immediately present, would neither command nor punish, is not in these acts to be subjected unto, and obeyed as a superior power, though in habit he may remain a superior power; for all habitual, all actual superiority is a formal participation of the power of the Most High.”


The Divine Right of Church Government…  (1646)

pp. 25-26

“Christ has not made pastors under-kings to create any laws morally obliging the conscience to obedience in the court of God, which God has not made to their hand;

if the king and synods only declare and propound, by a power of jurisdiction, that which God in the Law of Nature or the written Word has commanded; they are not the Law-makers, nor creators of that morality in the Law, which lays bonds on the conscience; yea, they have no organical, nor inferior influence in creating that morality, God only by an immediate act as the only immediate king, made the morality, and if king, parliaments and synods be under kings and under Law-givers, they must have an under-action, and a ministerial, subservient, active influence under Christ in creating as second causes, that which is the formal reason, and essence of all laws binding the conscience, and that is the morality that obliges the soul to eternal wrath, though king, parliament, pastors or synods should never command such a moral thing:

Now to propound, or declare, that God’s will is to be done in such an act, or synodical directory or canon, and to command it to be observed under civil and ecclesiastical pain, is not to make a law, it is indeed to act authoritatively under Christ as King: but it makes them neither kings, nor Law-givers, no more than heralds are little kings, or inferior law-givers, and parliaments, because in the name and authority of king and parliament they promulgate the laws of king and parliament:

The heralds are mere servants, and do indeed represent king and parliament, and therefore to wrong them, in the promulgation of laws, is to wrong king and parliament; but the heralds had no action, no hand at all in making the laws; they may be made when all the heralds are sleeping, and so by no propriety of speech can heralds be called mediate kings, under-Lawgivers, just so here, as touching the morality of all human laws, whether civil or ecclesiastical, God Himself immediately, yea, from eternity by an act of his free-pleasure made that without advice of men or angels; for who instructed Him?  Neither Moses, nor prophet, nor apostle; yea, all here are meri precones, only heralds;

Yet are not all these heralds, who declare the morality of laws, [for] equals may declare them charitative[ly], by way of charity to equals; but these only are to be obeyed as heralds of laws, whom God has placed in authority, as kings, parliaments, synods, the Church, masters, fathers, captains;

And it follows no ways that we disclaim the authority of all these because we will not enthrone them in the chair of the Supreme and only Lawgiver, and head of the Church; they are not under-Law-givers and little kings to create laws, the morality of which binds the conscience (for this God only can do); therefore, there be no parliaments, no kings, no rulers that have authority over men, it is a most unjust consequence; for all our divines, against Papists, deny that human laws, as human, do bind the conscience; but they deny not, but assert the power of jurisdiction in kings, parliaments, synods, pastors.”


p. 135

“…but I owe subjection of conscience to God solely, independently, and only…  Yea, though crosses and afflictions work only upon us, as occasions, and external objects; yet are we to submit our conscience to them, as to warnings, because they be sent as God’s messengers appointed by Him, as Mic. 6:9, ‘Hear the rod, and who has appointed it.'”


p. 214

“…obedience to authority in things wanting [lacking] God’s Word…  is not obedience, but sinning, because [it is] doing without faith [Rom. 14:23].”


A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience…  (1649), ch. 11, ‘Of the Obliging Power of Conscience’, p. 134

“…and certainly unjust laws from a just prince lay no band on the conscience or on the man, far less can the promulgation [of the law], as the promulgation, lay any bands on the conscience…”


George Gillespie

111 Propositions…  (Edinburgh, 1647), #53 & 60

“53.  The object of ecclesiastical power is not the same with the object of the civil power, but much differing from it; for the ecclesiastical power does determine and appoint nothing concerning men’s bodies, goods, dignities, civil rights, but is employed only about the inward man, or the soul, not that it can search the hearts, or judge of the secrets of the conscience, which is in the Power of God alone: Yet notwithstanding it has for its proper object those externals which are purely spiritual, and do belong properly and most nearly to the spiritual good of the soul; Which also are termed [in Greek] the inward things of the Church.

60.  Now we have one only Lord which governs our souls, neither is it competent to man, but to God alone to have power and authority over consciences.  But the Lord has appointed his own [ecclesiastical] stewards over his own Family, that according to his commandment they may give to every one their allowance or portion, and to dispense his mysteries faithfully; and to them he has delivered the keys, or power of letting in into his house, or excluding out of his house those whom He Himself will have let in or shut out. Mt. 16:19 and 18:18; Lk. 12:42; 1 Cor. 4:1; Tit. 1:7″


Francis Turretin

p. 287 of Question 31, ‘Does a legislative power properly so called, of enacting laws binding the conscience, belong to the church?  Or only an ordaining (diataktike) power, of sanctioning constitutions and canons for the sake of good order (eutaxian)?  The former we deny; the latter we affirm against the Romanists.’  under ‘Ecclesiastical Power’ in the 18th topic, ‘The Church’ in Institutes, vol. 3

“V.  …the conscience has no one between itself and God by whom it may be known and judged.  As it is known to God alone, so can it be judged by Him alone.”



God Only is the One Lawgiver

Calvin, John – Institutes, bk. 4, ch. 10, sections 7-8



If Authorities may Rule only in Accord with God’s Moral Law, how then is this More Authority than being Privately Counseled with God’s Moral Law?

Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), Ch. 2, Question 2, ‘Whether Human Laws Bind the Conscience or Not?’, pp. 210-11

“Answer:  1. We owe to equals, to Mahomet, conditional and cautionary faith and obedience; thus, I believe what Mahomet says, so he speak God’s Word; yea, so Samaritans who worshipped they knew not what (Jn. 4:26) gave faith to their teachers in a blind way, so they speak according to God’s Word.

2.  It follows in no sort, if rulers are only to be obeyed when they bring God’s Word, that then they are no more to be obeyed than equals and inferiors, because there is a double obedience, one of conscience, and [one] objective, coming from the thing commanded; And in respect of this, the Word has no less authority, and does no less challenge obedience of conscience, and objective, when my equal speaks it in a private way, yea, when I write it in my muse, than when a pastor speaks it by public authority;

For we teach against Papists that the Word borrows no authority from men, nor is it with certainty of faith to be received as the Word of man, but as indeed the Word of God, as the Scripture says:

1.  There is another obedience-official, which is also obedience of conscience, because the Fifth Commandment enjoins it.  Yet not obedience of conscience coming from the particular [positive aspect] commanded in human laws, as human;

so I owe obedience of subjection, and submission of affection, of fear, love, honor, respect, by virtue of the Fifth Commandment to rulers when they command according to God’s Word, and this I owe not to equals or inferiors; and so it follows not that the power of rulers and synods is titular, because they must warrant their mandates from the Word…

But 3. That I owe no more objective subjection of conscience to this, ‘Thou shalt not murder’, ‘Believe in Jesus Christ,’ when rulers and pastors command them, than when I read them in God’s Word…

…whether public or private person, adds not any intrinsical authority to the Word, for then the Word should be more or less God’s Word, as the bearers were public, or private, more or less worthy.  As God’s Word spoken by Amos, a prophet, should not be a word of such intrinsical authority as spoken by Moses, both a prince and a prophet.

4.  …and there is reason that synods and pastors, should rather promulgate God’s laws than the people:

1.  Because God has given to them by office, the key of knowledge.

2.  Because by office they are watchmen, and so have authority of office to hear the Law at God’s mouth, and in synods to give directories or canons according to that Word, which people have not, and that their canons must be according to God’s Word, is said in the Word, Neh. 10:32, “Also we made ordinances for us… (v. 34) as it is written in the law of the Lord.”


James Guthrie

Protesters No Subverters…  (1658), pp. 46-47

“But all Church-power and authority is bounded by the Word of God, and is for edification only; And therefore all the subjection that is due thereunto, is in the Lord only; and when we are thus subject, the power and authority is sufficiently acknowledged and preserved.

But, say our [Resolutioner] Brethren, without this [absolute, necessary, passive] submission [to erroneous Church decisions] which they plead for, our established judicatories would be nothing but consultative meetings.

But this we also deny, because what is resolved and determined by Kirk-judicatories in a right way, does not only bind by virtue of the intrinsic lawfulness thereof, it being for matter God’s Word, and by virtue of the reverence that is due to the gifts and endowments of brethren and friends counselling right things, which is all that can be attributed to a consultative meeting, but also by virtue of a positive law of God, by which He has commanded us to hear the Church, and those that sit in Moses’ chair, and to be subject in the Lord to Church-Governors, to whom He has given a ministerial and official authority and power to assemble in His Name in the respective courts appointed by Himself for governing His House according to the rule of His Word; And therefore as they have authority or a superiority of jurisdiction, which no consultative meeting has; So whosoever resists their power, when put forth to edification, and not to destruction, does not only sin by despising that Word of God which is the matter of their decree, and by despising the gifts and graces of their brethren that are exercised in holding forth light unto them, but does also sin by resisting the ordinance of God: a Kirk-judicatory modeled according to the pattern showed in the mount, and clothed with authority from Jesus Christ, and proceeding according to the Law and to the Testimony, to which they ought to be subject, God having commanded us so to do.”



On Rulers Erring in Judgment in a Situation with Degrees of Goodness

Samuel Rutherford

The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), p. 656

“In such a case as that where two [alternate choices of] circumstances, both of three [possible] degrees of goodness [either good, better or best] occurs, [1.] rulers can reasonably tie people to neither [circumstance], but leave it alternatively to their liberty; for why should liberty be restrained where necessity of order, and decency does not necessitate the ruler’s will?

2.  In such a case the ruler’s will, as will, should not be the formal cause why one is enacted rather than another, but [rather] the ruler’s will [should be] led by a reason from conveniency, and so there were a prevalent reason for the one rather than the other.

3.  I deny that such a metaphysical case of two things every way of alike conveniency can fall out, as [in] the matter of a grave and weighty Church-constitution; For Nature’s light, rules of prudence, pretty [attractiveness, fitness], charity, and sobriety shall ever find out and discover an exsuperancy [highness] of goodness and conveniency of one above another.

4.  Granting there be three degrees of goodness and conveniency in sitting [at the Lord’s Table], and two degrees of goodness and conveniency in kneeling [at the Lord’s Table], in this case the object necessitates the ruler’s will to command sitting and refuse kneeling:†

[† Rutherford is arguing on his opponents’ assumptions, as Rutherford held that sitting at the Lord’s Table was a spiritually significant, and therefore necessary, action.]

1. Because good being the formal object of a reasonable will, in both rulers and people, that which partakes more of the nature of good is first to be chosen.  Ergo [Therefore], the ruler’s will is determinated and morally necessitated to a circumstance of three degrees before a circumstance of two degrees; and we obey for the goodness of the thing commanded and not for the will of the rulers.

2.  If people obey, and so embrace a circumstance of two degrees, and refuse a convenient circumstance of three degrees, they either make this choice for the goodness and conveniency of the circumstance, or for the mere will of authority; the former cannot be said, because of two goods, known to be so, the one of three degrees and the other of two degrees, the will cannot reasonably choose the less good, because a less good, known as a less good, is evil, and the will cannot reasonably choose known evil:  A less good is a good with a defect, and so morally evil.

If then ruler’s cannot choose evil, they cannot reasonably command others to choose it; if the latter be said, the choice of people is reasonless, and their conscience rests upon the mere will of authority, which is slavish obedience.  How are we then bidden, ‘Try all things’? [1 Thess. 5:21]





Pareus, David – An Oration on the Question whether the Laws of the Magistrate Oblige the Conscience  (Heidelberg, 1616)  16 pp.


“I grant it is hard, because of the variety of singular actions in man’s life, to see the connection betwixt particulars of human laws and God’s laws; yet a connection there is, and for this cause the learned worthy divine, Pareus will have human laws in particulari and per se, ‘in the particular’ and ‘of themselves’ to bind the conscience.  Whereas Calvin, and Beza, Junius, Tilenus, Sibrandus, Whittakerus and others deny this.” – Divine Right, Ch. 2, Question 2, pp. 206-7

Chamier, Daniel – ch. 16, ‘Whether the Laws of the Civil Magistrate Oblige the Conscience, and How Far they Oblige?’  in Panstratiae Catholicae, or a Body of the Controversies of Religion Against the Papists, vol. 5 (Church)  (Frankfurt, 1627-1629), bk. 4, ‘Of the Members of the Church-Militant’

“The name of Chamier (d. 1621) is one of the greatest, not only among Calvinistic divines, but in all theological literature.  His Panstratiae Catholicae (1626) is the ablest work from a Calvinistic hand in in the great Roman Catholic Controversy, and takes its general rank with books like Chemnitz’s Examen and Gerhard’s Confessio Catholica.  It was prepared at the request of the Synod of Larochelle.  There is no difference of opinion among competent judges as to its distinguished merits, and it is justly regarded among all Calvinists as one of the highest authorities.” – Krauth, a Lutheran, p. 47

Voet, Gisbert – 7. Of the Legislative Power of the Churches, 5th Question, Responses 2-3, pp. 795-97  in Ecclesiastical Politics  (Amsterdam, 1663-1676), Vol. 4, pt. 3, bk. 4, Tract 1, ‘Of Ecclesiastical Power’




“For the Lord is our Judge; the Lord is our Lawgiver;
the Lord is our King; He will save us.”

Isa. 33:22




Related Pages

On Positive Laws & Ordinances

On Church Ordinances

On Arbitrary Laws

On Implicit Faith & Obedience

On Passive Obedience

Resistance to Tyranny

Civil Government


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